July 18, 2012
My mother died recently. She was 92 years old. She was ready to go. It was her time.
My childhood was filled with time spent in the woods and fields and mountains and farmland, together with times when we laughed from the bottoms of our bellies so that we wouldn't cry. My mother suffered deep emotional struggles and numerous extended psychiatric hospitalizations, the first when I was 8 years old. In many ways these experiences with my mother defined our relationship during my early adulthood.
In my late thirties, I converted to Judaism. At first my mother didn't relate at all, but as I gradually grew into my new spiritual home, something began to happen. My mother had been doing her own healing; through the vehicle of photography she had begun to explore light and darkness, the woods and fields of Wisconsin and her life. Now, each of us in a different space, we began to talk.
I discussed what I was learning and my experiences with Judaism. She spoke about art and systems theory. In between we talked about gardening and walking in the woods. Over time, our conversations grew deeper and more personal. We began to see the universal in our experiences. I spoke about G!d and blessing and ancient religious texts. She spoke about vision and color and symbols. We used different metaphors, different words, different contexts, but we were talking about the same thing. As we grew to understand and articulate this, barriers broke down between us. I turned to my mother because I knew that she would understand me in a way no one else could. I knew the conversation with her would give me insight that no other conversation could provide. I wanted to share my experiences with her. I wanted her to know about the shifts in thinking and understanding taking place within me.
As the years rolled by, we noticed that often we came to similar understandings or experienced similar spiritual or emotional growth or insight at the same time. It was as though we had some kind of thread connecting us: at one end were photographs, silk dying and pastel drawings, and at the other end Shabbat candlesticks, a prayer book and a page of Talmud. We were in spiritual sync.
Over the years, my mother began to understand what Judaism meant to me. I remember sitting on her porch, our lunch on the picnic table before us. We sat side by side, looking out over her backyard and the greenery beyond. We held hands. I chanted the Hebrew blessing I say before I eat. And then there was silence — a long, deep silence. And in that silence I knew that my mother understood what my adopted religious tradition meant to me. I knew because on that day, she shared it with me. She entered into my religious territory and it was meaningful to her.
It was not about the words; it was about the experience. And it stayed with her. Several years ago, an art opening was scheduled on a Friday evening while I was visiting. I knew how important it was to her to go, and I said it was fine, but it wasn't something I was comfortable doing on a Friday evening. She responded, "I'd rather share your Shabbat with you. That is more important to me."
One week before she died, my mother sat quietly, her chin resting on her clasped hands, entering deeply into meditation as I chanted the blessings to welcome Shabbat, and when she returned from her inner experience, she said, "I do so enjoy sharing your rituals with you."
As my mother's body and mind had slowly deteriorated, our rich and wonderful relationship gradually drifted away. I slowly let go and began to anticipate the end. Now she was gone. Although she was 92 and most of her contemporaries were gone, her rich life in the world of art and thought meant many people — of my generation — still felt a strong connection to her. And so my two brothers — both firmly rooted in Christianity — and I, put our heads and our hearts together to plan a memorial service to honor our mother — a person with an immensely deep spiritual life and no connection to any religious tradition.
It was important to all of us to fully honor our mother. And as we planned and negotiated, I understood that I needed to honor not only her, but also myself. Yet, far from home and community, immersed in my mother's space, I was unable to engage with the rich mourning resources of my adopted tradition. My mother had spent a year in medical school; seventy years later, in accordance with her wishes, her body was whisked from her bed and donated to the anatomy department. No opportunity to see her. No opportunity to throw dirt on her grave. I needed to mourn publicly, and soon, but it took a full week to reach the moment that we honored our mother.
Nurtured by our times of silence together, I had long known I would reach into my own tradition when this time arrived. During the days preceding the service, many emails from friends and colleagues included the traditional greeting of mourners, "Ha-Maqom y'nachem etchem" — literally "May the Place (or Space) comfort you" — and they kept me grounded and connected to Judaism.
With thorough respect for each other, my brothers and I planned a service that included readings from my mother's writings; guitar music played by my brother; a dance previously choreographed in her honor by the Dance Fellowship of the First Unitarian Society in Madison, a group in which my mother had long participated; and eulogies from a long-time colleague and friend, a former teacher and intellectual friend, and my brothers and myself. I spoke last. At the end of my description of my relationship with my mother, I directed my words to her: "Today, I will chant for you one more ritual, one you do not know and have never heard, for it is the memorial prayer for the dead, and we have been sharing life. But now you are gone and the way that I know to connect to you most deeply is through our shared spiritual journey through life. You have gone through a transition, and that is forcing me to go through a transition. You were ready, and I was ready, and so we share this transition, too, each in our own very different way, as we have for so many years."
Standing alone, I chanted.
Afterward, someone said, "It was wonderful. I thought, I must call Mary and tell her about the wonderful afternoon I just had. She would have enjoyed it so much. And then I remembered it was for her."
We had expressed just who my mother had been. We had honored her. We had given her a service that was true to who and what she had been. And I had honored myself. In that moment of chanting El Malei Rachamim — O G!d full of mercy — I had been fully present to myself, to my mother and to G!d. My mourning and my healing had begun.
When I honored my mother through her memorial service, I had the ultimate interfaith encounter. I reached across the boundaries of my faith in a way that kept me whole and intact. I did it in a way that allowed me to reach my deepest innermost resources. I did it in a way that was true and authentic to me, and true and authentic to my mother, and as a result, I had a powerful and intense experience of G!d, an encounter that to this day strengthens me and makes possible the transformation demanded by the loss of a parent.